Social work is different in the North — and in a good way, according to Janice Wiens, a Yukon College instructor who's been studying the profession in Yukon.
Wiens is part of a team of researchers that was recently awarded a $75,000 grant to look more closely at how social work is practised in the territory. It's a partnership between Yukon College and Ryerson University, and it will build on a pilot project done over the last few years.
According to Wiens, that pilot project involved talking to social workers in small and rural communities in 2015 and 2016. What became clear, she says, is that Northern social work is not necessarily more challenging than it would be elsewhere.
"What the social workers in this study were describing to us is multiplicities of positives about working in those small communities, and that you work differently with people," Wiens says.
Wiens described how workers in small communities inevitably get to know clients outside of a professional setting — for example, by chatting "over celery at the grocery store."
Another one of the researchers, Susan Preston of Ryerson, says those sort of multi-faceted relationships are rarely talked about in the social work programs and research.
"That's something you're not going to see in a bigger southern community. And people talked about that being a really positive thing and that's something that you're not going to experience elsewhere," Preston says.
Wiens believes it's something that should be recognized in the national code of ethics for social workers.
"We're suggesting that that is one area where we could start developing some suggestions about ways that you manage multiple relationships in small communities," she says.
Preparing for small communities
Preston says one of the goals in continuing and expanding the research is to help prepare social workers who decide to work in a small or rural community. She hopes the findings could be incorporated into social work curricula.
"This knowledge is not just specific to the Yukon. There's a lot that we've learned in this process that's going to be really important to social workers practising anywhere," Preston says.
"We heard from some of our participants about how their social work education in the south did not prepare them for practice here."
Wiens says their earlier research told them social work programs in southern Canada don't often consider Indigenous communities.
"That was something that was really highlighted by social workers who were educated elsewhere — is that they felt that they were not well-prepared to understand ... the impacts of colonization, residential schools, and how those impacts are currently affecting communities," Wiens says.
"So that was something that they learned very quickly here."